One of the best parts of my work as a scholar involves traveling throughout California to meet environmental justice activists. This usually involves a sit-down interview. It sometimes also involves driving around someone’s neighborhood for an impromptu tour, sharing a meal, or meeting members of their families. I cross paths with some people over and over, while others I meet just the one time. Over the years, this process has increasingly blurred the boundary between my personal life and my professional life, and considerably enriched both.
But the joy of these relationships can also become a sorrow when the people I work with suffer from health problems and other hardships, as they often do. At the close of 2014, I would like to remember one such person in particular, so that her life might inspire work towards social and environmental justice in 2015 and all the years to come.
I first met Teresa De Anda in 2007, when I sat in on one of the monthly meetings of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment’s Delano Advisory Board. I was there to describe my master’s research and ask the community leaders on the advisory board if they would be willing to participate in it. At that time Teresa was the group’s president, and she was quick to say yes. I learned over time that this generosity of spirit was core to who she was.
As she has done for so many others, Teresa invited me into her home to tell me about her life and her work. Over the years I continued to get to know Teresa through photographing her, through her participation in Voices from the Valley (formerly called 25 Stories from the Central Valley), and through the many other environmental justice events we both attended. I came to know her as generous, fierce, and a lot of fun.
Teresa lived next to vast fields of industrial agriculture. When we first met she told me about the regular pesticide drift she experienced at her home in Earlimart. She told me about how many people in her community had cancer. I later learned that Earlimart was the site of a childhood cancer cluster in the late 1980s.
Teresa later got cancer herself, and passed away three months ago today. Her death at 55 is made doubly tragic by the fact that it is hard to think of her illness as random, rather than as part of a pattern of toxic exposure in politically marginalized communities. Much of her life’s work involved changing this pattern. Her efforts helped mandate the creation of buffer zones that limit the drift of pesticides into non-agricultural spaces in a number of California’s San Joaquin Valley counties by restricting what pesticides can be used near homes, schools and farmworker housing. Teresa’s work also improved the government’s emergency responses to pesticide drift incidents statewide. She was a bright light whose loss will be deeply felt.
So others might also know of her life and her legacy, I have collected excerpts from my 2007 interview with Teresa and edited them into an essay shared on In Her Own Words, along with my favorite photos of her. In Her Own Words includes suggestions for reading ideas to pair with the website in college classrooms. It also contains resources for activists. Read on for an excerpt from Teresa’s story.
Earlimart, CA. November 1999-2000
Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.
Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county ag commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.
[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.
One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.
So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.
Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical to which they had been exposed is activated by water, and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.
Tracy Perkins is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz